Heat pumps: a viable option for UK homes?

Climate change and the cost of energy mean many of us are starting to think seriously about installing greener technology in our homes. We can't all knock down our houses and put up a new PassivHaus instead, but products such as heat pumps are an option. So how viable are they? 

Alpha heat pump

The UK Government has a target to install 600,000 air source heat pumps a year in homes by 2028 and some grants are available to help with costs (around £5,000, which, let's face it, considering pumps costs between £12-17,000 isn't enough to be of any real help to most people). However, once momentum gets going prices may fall and grants may rise so it's worth keeping an eye on what's happening in the world of air source heat pumps. Photo: Alpha Heating Innovation

The holy grail is for everyone to have a low-carbon, low-cost form of heating.

But according to a recent study, only half (54 per cent) of UK homeowners are aware of heat pumps, and many aren't clear of their options when it comes to incorporating green tech into their heating and hot water system - as well as the many regulations that surround this thus far fairly unknown piece of equipment.

Daniel Wilden, renewable product manager for Kent based heating company Alpha Innovation, answers common questions around installing an air source heat pump in your home, and the key factors to think about to ensure you meet planning regulations.

What is an Air Source Heat Pump, and will it replace my gas boiler?

More homeowners are becoming aware of upcoming changes to home heating, with the abolition of new gas boilers by 2035. Many, though, are not sure what this means for them, and whether they need to start thinking now about installing greener technology.

Many of us think it's an 'either-or' choice between heat pump or boiler; however with a hybrid approach, households can tap into the best of both technologies, while also making the most of low-carbon electricity. Heat pumps can also work alongside an oil or LPG-boiler for homes that are off the gas grid.

The most common heat pump found in UK homes is the air-to-water type. This has an outdoor unit (approx 1m(w) x 1m(h) x 330m(d) that collects heat from the outdoor air and raises the temperature to heat water for your radiators or underfloor heating. The heat pump can also provide hot water to a cylinder.

A heat pump is an energy-efficient way to deliver heating and hot water to a home as, on average, it uses 1 kilowatt of electricity to produce approximately 3 kilowatts of heat (dependent on the size of the system and outdoor temperatures).

Is it expensive to install a heat pump and will it save me money in the long-run?

The benefit of installing an air source heat pump is the potentially incredible long-term cost savings it will make on your monthly outgoings.

As a new and quite specialist technology, the cost of the heat pump unit and associated labour costs is a significant investment, when compared to a standard combi boiler replacement for example. However being a low-carbon energy technology, the running costs are significantly lower.

The UK Government is also offering limited grant funding on air source heat pumps, which sees homeowners receive £5,000 towards the cost of a heat pump, and a zero rate of VAT for installing clean heating measures.

Do I need planning permission to install an air source heat pump on my property?

It's important when planning to install a heat pump that you're aware of the necessary planning regulations that apply to your property.

Air source heat pumps do fall under the 'permitted development' regulations, which is the term used for modifications to a property that do not require formal planning permission to be submitted to your local council – a common one is a small single-storey extension or outbuilding for a house (not a flat).

However, for a heat pump to comply with permitted development terms, several requirements must be met, otherwise full planning permission is required. Should you need to go down the planning permission route, the council will consult your neighbours to check they are happy that you install a heat pump on the outside of your property. If a neighbour were to complain about the heat pump unit, and you didn't have the correct planning in place, the council would be within their rights to remove it.

Permitted Development terms include:

Noise – a noise calculation must be done before the heat pump is installed to ensure limited impact on your neighbours. The calculation, which should be completed by your installer, looks at sound power level of the pump, any reflective surfaces (such as the wall or floor), its position distance from your neighbours' closest habitable rooms, as well as if there are any barriers (e.g. fencing) standing between the unit and your neighbour
Size – a heat pump cannot be larger than 0.6 cubic metres (although most standard size units do not exceed this)
Location – the heat pump must be sited one metre or more away from your property's boundary. If installed on a flat roof, it must be one metre or more from the edge
Your property – permitted development does not apply on any listed properties, or those situated in conservation areas, or flats/apartments.
First pump only – permitted development is granted only on the first heat pump (or wind turbine) on your premises

Who should install my air source heat pump?

The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accredits contractors able to meet the planning standards surrounding the installation of low-carbon energy technologies.

It's vital that when having a heat pump installed, you opt for an MCS-certified contractor. As well as having unrivalled knowledge and training on the rules and requirements around air source heat pumps, they are obliged to take legal responsibility should anything go wrong.

They are experienced in both the design and installation of a heat pump and will be able to advise on the best location for your heat pump, enabling you to operate under permitted development (where achievable).

In addition, a homeowner must use an MCS-certified installer to be able to claim the £5,000 grant funding from the Government – so making sure your installer has the right accreditations a no brainer.


For further information about Alpha and its range of low-carbon energy heating technologies, visit alpha-innovation.co.uk.